Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Caution Ahead: Council Votes on Foxwoods

Take a look of these photos of Harrah's New Orleans casino and tell me what you don't see.

Okay, I'll answer that. You don't see any big, revolving, neon, roof-top signs. Sure the building has decorative night-time lighting and signage. But what they have is surprisingly low-key and tasteful, the kind of lighting that you might find on any urban civic building. Even the hotel tower, shown to the right of the casino, has very minimal signage. Harrah's branding of its downtown casino largely amounts to a pair of its globe logos on pedestals flanking the entrance. There are also a pair of globes on the roof of the porte-cochere, visible in the photo below.

You know how Harrah's lighting scheme differs from the average casino? It's pitched to the pedestrian, not the car. You only need a revolving roof-top sign if you're trying to lure motorists off the highway.

I bring this up now because tomorrow City Council is scheduled to vote on the Commercial Entertainment District legislation that will pave the way for Foxwoods to open a slots-only casino in the Gallery shopping mall, at 11th and Market Streets. And that bill will allow way more intrusive lights than those allowed at Harrah's - including animated and revolving signs. The bill also says nothing about requirements for landscaping - one of the things that makes the New Orelans casino so attractive - or transparency at street level.

New Orleans is currently the biggest city in America with a downtown casino. If Foxwoods jumps from the Delaware waterfront to the Gallery, Philly will gain that title. As I argued in a recent column, I think the move makes the best of the bad hand that Philadelphia was dealt by Gov. Rendell and the state legislature when they legalized slots-only gambling.

That said, I'm starting to worry that the Nutter Administration and City Council are moving too fast to facilitate the move. There are still lots of issues that need to be clarified. Signage is one. As I wrote in my column, Nutter has a responsibility to assure Chinatown that it will be protected.

How will the mayor prevent this great neighborhood - the last in the city where people live, work and shop - from being swamped with pawn shops and check-cashing outlets? What kind of planning and streetscape improvements can be made to buffer Chinatown from casino-related nuisances? How does the city expect to control traffic flow and parking to minimize the impact on Chinatown? Of course, the city doesn't have all the answers yet. That will take serious planning and traffic studies. But the city should be able to provide a general overview of its strategy.

Administration officials insist that it's still early days. They say the zoning bill is merely a first step, and that Foxwoods still must win approval for a Plan of Development from the Planning Commission. Part of the problem, I think, is that Chinatown bet the house on keeping Foxwoods out of the Gallery, rather than negotiating for protections. Now that it looks like they lost that game, it's crucial that the neighborhood representatives start negotiating with city officials for guarantees. And it's crucial that Nutter Administration and City Council respond in good faith.


Blogger Bud Bray said...

The Mashantucket-Pequot Nation, owners of Foxwoods and a now particularly influential component of politics here in Connecticut, continue to suffer considerable resentment among non-Native Americans, in some respects owing to the Afro-American bloodlines that became a part of its lineage as native Americans and slaves, freed or fugitive, recognized their mutual position as social pariah. A Philadelphia native and resident of Foxwoods' home territory for more than four decades, I continue to wonder whether my home city, founded by a Quaker colonist whose singularly concilatory gesture to natives was in sharp contrast to the subsequent fervors of The Paxton Boys from Connecticut, can distinguish between the luster of Foxwoods' proposal for downtown Philadelphia as opposed to the dispiriting and depressing display of exploitation evidenced by the British-owned casino in Bensalem. If they can and do, the Mashantuckets will demonstrate to Pennsylvanians that there is a continuing contrast between Native American and foreign use of American opportunities. Growing up in Bensalem, I learned that Neshaminy and "Injun Joe," the strange man who lived alone in a stockaded compound on the bank of the creek bearing that name and where I trapped muskrats, were references to aspects of history about which I was not informed in school. Things Anglo, however, were disproportionately emphasized. It is comforting to know that Foxwoods' profits in Philadelphia will contribute to its owners' Smithsonian-level contributions to informing us, at its Pequot Museum on Foxwoods' reservation here, that William Penn was the exception, not the rule that British interests rooted in soil taken by force with staggering dividends realized through disdain for brotherly love. That money from Philadelphia will contribute to the Pequot revision of historical context should somehow be signified by this Native American addition to Philadelphia's skyline, further illuminating the grace of that likeness looking out from the apex of your City Hall. There's more to Foxwoods than meets the eye. It's a safe bet Market Street gambling will contribute to an emphasis on native sovereignty in a state without a square inch of native reservation or a single federally recognized tribe. The irony of it continues to amaze, particularly for those of us Pennsylvanians who were deeply imprinted with William Penn's story as boys playing cowboys and injuns where Lenapes once reigned.

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

what year is it? this isnt a vote about cowboys and indians and chinese and black and white. this is about present day issues, we cant continue to live in the past. why dont we rename germantown and china town while we're at it and blame it on "past human rights atrocities". give me a break. why dont we designate the gallery as a historic building and screw the whole thing up. this is by far the best solution to the problem, and I am against the entire slots thing to begin with. the city finally has an opportunity to do something with market east, have you been there at 8pm lately? its an embarassment to stay at the lowes and walk out to that mess.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a bad situation...and Inga is right...Rendell and the state legislature forced these casinos on Philadelphia. Hopefully, the casino won't be the cheese-fest that Mayor Street 'envisioned' when he said "i wanna see neon" on the Delaware riverfront (our last best undeveloped land in the city). When idiots like Street run the city - you get what you get. Hopefully, Nutter will continue to impress and advocate for good design.

10:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I have been to the Harrahs in downtown New Orleans a couple of times and I agree with you that it fits very well into the pulse of the city without being obnoxious, boisterous, crass, or ugly. I sincerely hope that if we are stuck with these casinos City Hall will make sure they compliment the city and do not destroy the Chinatown and Market East areas.

11:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what its worth, Detroit has downtown casinos not that it should be any kind of model for Philly. One fact correction is that Detroit is larger than New Orleans.

Further, its Greektown casino is integrated into that neighborhood quite well in a multi-story conversion of a former mall. Sound familiar?


1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was at the Merriam Theater recently, enjoying the sight of my daughter on stage as the white whipping post for JD Lawrence's "The Clean Up Woman," a decidedly African-American moral play. My pride, as a native of The City of Brotherly Love, made, as "grandfather" said in the Dustin Hoffman movie "Little Big Man," my heart soar like a hawk. Another irony to be noted with Foxwoods' advance in Philly is that Chinatown is a cultural refuge for those who can, as science informs us, harken back to the days when ancestors of those proud of their Asian-American heritage made their way across a land mass connecting today's Sibera with today's Alaska to become today's First Americans. Do we not forever live in the past, as descendants of those who went before us? Or should we dismiss history, thereby giving ourselves, as you put it, "a break?"

1:05 PM  
Blogger Patrick T. Hoffman said...

I'll admit ... I don't follow any logic in some of the earlier statements posted here.

Still, I am curious why no one has commented on the interplay that might occur between the added casino and the current expansion of the convention center?

I am not a fan of the area of the city under discussion. I have lived by it for a year now and known it for longer. In many ways it reminds me of areas of New York City along 8th avenue south of Columbus Circle. Areas that experienced remarkable cleaning, reuse, and growth following the mid 80's.

I would gladly welcome such a revitalization of the area surrounding 11th and Market ...unfortunately I do not believe such will be the result of adding a casino.

I hold this opinion for a number of reasons: one reason, is that the history of the social elements surrounding American casinos (particularly slot only casinos) are known to be some of the worst in urban history, and second ...there is a commuter rail line that runs through and stops within the bounds of this district. This rail line has always been a matter of dispute with regards to the success of whatever use-type inhabits those buildings, whether it is a "ghetto" mall or a casino.

Those reasons aside, I believe the greater issue is the level of disarray and lifelessness that has plagued this district ever since the move of our city financial centers from south broad street to Market, west of city hall. Such a move effectively created a no man's land to the east of city hall extending as far as our old city and its historic district, which then and now effectively serves as an amusement park for thousands of tourists who want to "see" how our nations founders lived and to "see" where the roots of our nation's commitment to individual freedoms lay.

Ultimately, the casino will happen. And it should not be a matter for racial slights or affirmations. It should be addressed for what it is, a business move designed to bring money into our city and into our state. More than likely, Hotels will invest in the area ...and maybe, just maybe some wise introduction of a few mixed-use residential buildings will lead to a successful revitalization along the Market Street corridor from 12th to 9th Streets.

Before the city allows the casino to move ahead it should focus on creating a master plan they will commit to following and completing. In the troubled economic times that we find ourselves recklessly invest in something as known for societal failure as a casino is simply an ill-advised move on the part of the city. Our officials and planners need to treat this district as a programmatic whole and move past the black and white of green bills.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Patrick T. Hoffman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe the casino and convention center expansion will finally force the CCD and mayors office to do something about the homeless on market east (although I understand there are plans for a homeless shelter behind the septa building in the church there), this is one of the real problems, it is downright embarrassing to get off at market east, head upstairs into that mess that exists today at that corner. I am not worried about the first americans crossing a land bridge to alaska, I am worried about homeless people throwing up on the streets in front of tourists, conventioneers and business people. nice first impression. something has to be done to add life to the area. the city should have forced development of the girard block, they own it for crying out loud.

4:11 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home